Introduction: the complex Asian nuclear deterrence environment
Asia is home to five of the eight declared nuclear-armed states: China, India, North Korea, Pakistan and Russia, while a sixth, the United States, has an omnipresent role in the nuclear politics of the region. Asia is home to the most recent nuclear proliferators; the fastest growing nuclear arsenals; the most credible concerns about nuclear use—be it deliberate, accidental or by a rogue actor; the most likely candidates for future nuclear proliferation; and perhaps the most complex nuclear politics and relationships anywhere on the planet. It is also the only region where nuclear-armed states reside outside of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT),<1>
held by many as the centrepiece of global nuclear order. While nuclear dynamics and challenges differ considerably whether one focuses on the subcontinent to the South or the pacific Northeast of the region, the broader Asian nuclear order is co-constitutive, with actions in one theatre having knock-on effects in the others, and indeed, globally. The result is twofold: First, many of the axioms and lessons learnt from a predominantly western 20th
century nuclear past may not necessarily apply, or at least not apply in the same way, to the 21st
century nuclear Asia of today and tomorrow. Second, Asia seems likely to be the main stage where the major dramas and challenges of the second nuclear age and of global nuclear order more broadly will play out. Taken together, these two dynamics will likely necessitate a rethinking of how we manage and go about securing our global nuclear future.
In order to better understand these myriad pressures and challenges, this essay proceeds in four parts: the first looks at the current nuclear impasse in South Asia, and outlines the major complications and stumbling blocks toward better security and stability between India and Pakistan; moving east, the second section explains current Chinese nuclear thinking and policy, and in particular how Chinese nuclear modernisation plans are creating new pressures and uncertainties across the continent; the third looks at China’s contiguous neighbour, North Korea, and sets out to outline and explain the key issues involved in the ongoing North Korean nuclear phenomenon; finally, the last section considers the role of the United States as an offshore security balancer, and particularly the importance of credible US extended deterrence to prevent possible future regional proliferation.
Maintaining a delicate nuclear balance in South Asia
The second nuclear age began with a bang on the South Asian subcontinent in May 1998 as first India and then Pakistan overtly tested nuclear devices. While the international community had long been concerned about Indian and Pakistan nuclear weapons programmes (indeed, India conducted a so-called peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974), and both probably had some sort of nuclear capability by the late 1980s, the tests marked a significant turning point in international nuclear affairs. Neither India nor Pakistan had signed the NPT, the two had fought a series of bloody wars over the preceding decades, and tensions seemed set to increase rather than decrease with the advent of nuclear weapons into this already strained balance. In fact, just a year later, India and Pakistan fought the 1999 Kargil War in the shadow of nuclear weapons—somewhat dispelling the myth that nuclear weapons make such wars impossible—and have clashed on several other occasions since. As Feroz Hassan Khan put it just a few years after the tests: “…the region has witnessed increased regional tensions, a rise in religious extremism, a growing arms race, tense stand-offs, and even armed conflict.”<2>
Since 1998, both India and Pakistan have developed their nuclear capabilities apace, adding more warheads and more sophisticated means of delivery to their nuclear arsenals. As of 2016, India probably has around 110 nuclear warheads and Pakistan perhaps 120,<3>
and the possibility of further rapid expansion is a major concern.
The greatest fear in South Asia is that a regional nuclear arms race could lead to some type of inadvertent miscalculation following a minor skirmish that could escalate quickly to the nuclear level. This problem stems from the fact that Pakistani nuclear weapons are primarily about deterring superior Indian conventional forces, while Indian nuclear weapons are as much about China as they are Pakistan. The threat that India might be able to “take out” Pakistani nuclear assets with a quick conventional strike and overwhelm the country before a response could be ordered is a major concern for Pakistani planners. This issue has not been helped by the development of an Indian “Cold Start” doctrine, which in turn has led to an increased focus on tactical or battlefield nuclear deployments, such as the Nasr missile, by Pakistan.<4>
These challenges are exacerbated by geography, the contiguous border, and above all the very short warning times involved.
A second major concern is nuclear security, and particularly the possibility that terrorist groups might somehow acquire nuclear material, a nuclear device or precipitate or deepen a nuclear crisis. This challenge appears to be particularly acute in Pakistan given both the problems experienced with terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda in recent years, but also concerns about the security and safety of Pakistani nuclear assets and forces. A perceived requirement to keep Pakistani nuclear forces on alert and dispersed due to fears of an Indian conventional first strike does not help this predicament. Thus, India is concerned about the credibility of Pakistan command and control of its nuclear forces—a fear exacerbated by the unravelling of the A.Q. Khan nuclear smuggling network—while Pakistan fears that India could use its powerful conventional military to over-run Pakistan. Taken together, these developments make safely and securely controlling a crisis particularly problematic and worrying in South Asia.
What happens on the subcontinent also has considerable knock-on effects for the broader Asian region and for global nuclear order too. Pakistani actions to enhance their perceived security position vis-à-vis India by bolstering its nuclear capability will likely have effects to the West, such as in the Arabian Gulf and the Middle East, as well as in India. Likewise, Indian nuclear policy and expansion is likely to be interpreted as a possible threat by China, and, as is explained below, vice-versa. More broadly, and especially given the trend towards more, rather than less, nuclear weapons in the region, developments in South Asia will be integral to the future of international nuclear institutions, not least the NPT, but also the rules and conditions for gaining access to international nuclear fuels markets, particularly after the framework for the eventual US-India civilian nuclear deal was announced in 2005.
Drivers and implications of Chinese nuclear policy
China became the fifth state to join the nuclear club and the last to do so before the NPT was signed, when it exploded its first nuclear device in 1964. Since this time Chinese planners have remained committed to deploying a minimum nuclear deterrent capability and the smallest nuclear force possible to meet perceived requirements—principally, threatening to inflict unacceptable damage in response to any attack, rather than entertaining any notions of nuclear war-fighting. Thus, China never built the enormous nuclear stockpiles and the sophisticated delivery systems amassed by the United States and the Soviet Union, and is currently estimated to have a nuclear stockpile of around 260 warheads.<5>
As a result, significant cuts to US and Russian nuclear stockpiles will probably need to be made before China will enter into any disarmament discussions.
In the past decade, the perceived requirements of a Chinese minimum nuclear deterrent capability have begun to shift, and Beijing now appears to be making a concerted effort to upgrade, modernise and perhaps also expand its nuclear forces. The main reason for this is a transformation in US policy that has seen a strong shift towards greater reliance on non-nuclear capabilities for deterrence as part of a New Triad of strategic forces. While this transformation is ostensibly about providing a more flexible suite of capabilities to deal with the nuclear challenges posed by so-called “rogue states,” these developments have caused alarm in China too, particularly about the credibility of an assured second nuclear strike capability. As Taylor Fravel and Even Madeiros explain:
…concerns about maintaining a credible second strike force are driven by the U.S. military’s development of a trifecta of nonnuclear strategic capabilities: (1) missile defences, (2) long-range conventional strike, and (3) sophisticated command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) assets to locate and target China’s nuclear forces. The combination of these three capabilities, in the eyes of the Chinese, provides the United States with the ability to eliminate China’s deterrent in a crisis without crossing the nuclear threshold, reopening the door to coercion of China.<6>
While these capabilities remain limited for now, the Chinese fear that a rapid expansion—both qualitatively and quantitatively—in the future could undermine the mutually assured deterrence relationship with the United States, and therefore curtail Chinese freedom of action in the region.
The result is that China has begun to rethink what is required for deterrence, and particularly the types of nuclear capability needed to survive a non-nuclear attack and overwhelm any ballistic missile defence. The need for more flexible and capable nuclear forces will raise questions for China’s hitherto relaxed nuclear posture, particularly whether missiles and warheads can remain routinely de-mated, and if a policy of nuclear No First Use can be continued (especially with the introduction of the Type-094 nuclear-armed submarine). It is also difficult to see how these perceived pressures will not lead to a more diversified and larger Chinese nuclear force. However, while Chinese nuclear capabilities are principally about retaining a survivable force vis-à-vis the United States, such moves will also be met with concern by other states too. They may well drive further Indian nuclear expansion, with knock-on effects for Pakistan, the South Asian nuclear balance, and so on. But it is also likely to concern other actors to the north and east of the region, specifically Japan, South Korea and Taiwan—nations already concerned about what they perceive as expansionist Chinese tendencies.<7> The implications for these states, and concurrently for US policy, is dealt with later in this essay.
Understanding the North Korean nuclear challenge
North Korea is the only state to test a nuclear weapon in the 21st century, and for many experts and commentators remains the number one nuclear proliferation challenge of the second nuclear age. It also typifies the inherent and intrinsic problems facing the international community in preventing a determined state from acquiring a nuclear capability. While Pyongyang’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon can probably be traced all the way back to the 1970s, substantial international sanctions as well as chronic internal problems due to its pariah status have meant that it did not conduct its first nuclear test until 2006. However, since this time North Korea has conducted a further four nuclear tests (2009, 2012 and two in 2016), and has engaged in sabre-rattling and provocative rhetoric with its immediate regional neighbours, and especially its chief enemy, the United States. As of 2016, experts believe that Pyongyang may have built six to eight low-yield nuclear devices, have the requisite facilities and technical knowhow to either enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium to build more,<8> and have a range of missiles of which these could be delivered to their targets.
Given the nature of the North Korean regime it is difficult to know anything for certain, but it is likely that its nuclear ambitions have been driven by a mixture of internal and external dynamics. Perhaps chief amongst these is the ever-present threat of attack from the United States and its regional allies, a fear that never went away after the Korean War of the early 1950s, and which was exacerbated by the deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea until 1991. A second reading is that a nuclear capability enhances the prestige of the country and the regime, and is the embodiment of North Korea as a modern, advanced state. Lastly, and linked to this, a nuclear weapons capability may be driven to some degree by domestic politics, and particularly the perceived need of the leader(s) of the regime to demonstrate to its citizens its power and strength. This appears to be especially true since the accession to power of Kim Jong-un in December 2011.
What is even less clear—thanks largely to the nature and limited understanding of the regime in Pyongyang—are North Korean intentions, and whether a nuclear North Korea will “play by the same rules” as the other nuclear powers. The main concern here regards the rationality of the leadership, which, given the highly centralised power structure in North Korea, exacerbates the chances of miscalculation or inadvertent escalation. This perception has been highlighted by aggressive recent North Korean actions—such as the sinking of the South Korea naval vessel Cheonan and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong island in 2010—as well as increasingly inflammatory rhetoric about the United States, including a threat to “wipe out Manhattan” in March 2016.<9> But at the same time, other analysts believe that the North Korean regime’s main objective is survival, that it accepts a condition of mutually assured destruction, and understands that any use of nuclear weapons would mean near obliteration. This apparent contradiction is summed up well by Denny Roy:
The first theory is that the leaders of North Korea are irrational or desperate, and their actions are strategically senseless. If this is the case, other Asia-Pacific governments will be unable to surmount their disagreements with Pyongyang through agreements and cooperation. They must also expect and prepare for hyper-aggressive and suicidal North Korean policies. A second common view holds that North Korean leaders believe they need an external enemy for domestic political purposes. They therefore engage in self-alienation to ensure continual tensions with the outside world. According to this view Pyongyang will never give up its nuclear weapons or reconcile with its adversaries. A third theory is that fomenting crises serves two basic North Korea objectives: security and extracting concessions. Pyongyang believes the risks of a tension-raising policy are acceptable given the potential rewards and lack of other options.<10>
The problem is that the United States, its regional allies, as well as Russia and China, are increasingly being forced to think about the worst-case scenario. The lack of trust between Pyongyang and its immediate neighbours has been further eroded by accusations that North Korea has supplied both nuclear and missile technology to other rogue actors across the globe.
US extended nuclear deterrence and the threat of regional proliferation
The final key dynamic in the Asian region, and the one that impacts on and shapes all the other challenges descried above, is the role of the United States. The United States has long been the “offshore balancer” that has underpinned Asian nuclear order, predominantly in the east, but also increasingly in the south too. This plays out in three different ways: 1) the stance taken toward states in the region regarding civilian nuclear energy and cooperative agreements; 2) the importance of the United States as a threat for North Korea and China; and 3) the extended nuclear deterrence guarantees provided to certain states in the region. This section focuses on the role of US extended deterrence to a handful of key regional players and particularly the growing threat that these states could chose to “go nuclear” in the near future.
US extended deterrence guarantees have been a central part of the Northeast Asian security architecture for decades, and are arguably a key reason why more states have not chosen to fully pursue nuclear weapons programmes. In fact, both South Korea and Taiwan had nuclear weapons research programmes in the 1970s that were curtailed thanks in part to security guarantees from Washington, and a strong alliance with the United States has meant that while Japan has long had at least the theoretical potential to produce a bomb in a relatively short period of time, it has chosen to forego this option. However, the security calculations of these states, and particularly the possible value of an indigenous nuclear weapons capability, has begun to change in recent years due to a growing concern about both Chinese and North Korean regional ambitions, and at the same time a loss of confidence in the United States to uphold and carry out their protective guarantee. Concerns about the credibility of the US nuclear assurance have been buttressed by the anti-nuclear agenda of President Barack Obama and by a longer-term trend in US deterrence thinking to augment and even supplant nuclear weapons with advanced conventional weapons. This perception has been further clouded by the stance taken by then Republican nominee and now President-elect Donald Trump, which could mean the United States reducing its defence budget by encouraging its allies, especially Japan and South Korea, to build nuclear weapons.<11>
The problem that the United States faces is that it must balance three often competing but also constitutive sets of nuclear priorities in the region: First, addressing the challenge posed by North Korea and ensuring that Pyongyang is deterred from destabilising actions; second, attempting to formulate a workable relationship with China while at the same time retaining strategic nuclear stability; and third, reassuring US allies against both North Korean action and the perception of increasing Chinese influence and power across the region. As I have argued elsewhere with Benjamin Zala:
…the way in which the US seeks to mitigate this cleavage between North Korea/China and the ‘status quo’ traditional US allies in the region is likely to have far reaching consequences for the ‘pivot’ eastwards and for the US-led nuclear non- proliferation agenda more broadly.<12>
Given the uncertainty that surrounds the future of US foreign policy after the 2016 election, the lack of clarity regarding the ongoing “pivot” to Asia, and the broader perception that the United States as a global power is in decline, it remains to be seen how these pressures will be balanced and nuclear politics will play out. While it may not currently be likely, it is certainly not impossible to see a proliferation cascade in Northeast Asia should the security environment become more acute in the years ahead.
Conclusion: The Asian nuclear century
During the first nuclear age, world attention focused on Europe, and the delicate balance of terror between the United States, its NATO allies and the Soviet Union. But the focus of the incipient second nuclear age will unquestionably be Asia. The Asian continent is home to most of the world’s current nuclear powers; is the most likely region for future nuclear proliferation; and is perhaps of the most concern when it comes to possible future nuclear use. To be sure, nuclear politics are likely to play out in different ways in the south and east of the region; inadvertent escalation, miscalculation, and the safe and secure command and control of nuclear weapons and material is the greatest risk between India and Pakistan, while proliferation (both horizontal and vertical) is clearly the main threat on the Pacific flank. But while geographically separated, these dynamics will nevertheless continue to be co-constitutive. Indian nuclear strategy will continue to influence Chinese thinking and actions as well as nuclear views in Pakistan, which in turn will likely drive instability among China’s immediate regional neighbours. Chinese nuclear actions will have a considerable impact both to the south and the east; and US nuclear thinking, politics and strategy will have considerable knock-on effects in the region as it seeks to balance the competing goals of preventing proliferation, assuring allies, addressing the threat from North Korea, shaping a strategic relationship with China, and maintaining an even hand in South Asia. The role of Russia in the nuclear politics of the region will also loom large. Indeed, “great power” nuclear tensions between China, Russia and the United States seem most likely to play out in Asia in the coming century.
We should not take it for granted that nuclear politics will play out in the future Asian context in the same ways that they did in the past in Europe, and there is reason to believe that nuclear deterrence and nuclear geopolitics will become more, rather than less, complex in the years ahead. Three of the main players in the Asian nuclear context stand outside of the NPT; at least two states have the potential to develop a nuclear weapons capability in a short period of time; North Korea is unlikely to disarm any time soon; and the future role of the United States as regional nuclear balancer is increasingly uncertain. Add to this milieu a new suite of advanced weapons technologies with strategic potential, such as missile defence, precision strike weapons and cyber-attack capabilities, and the aspiration of a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons seems a long way away—if anything, nuclear weapons are becoming more and not less important in Asia. Taken together it appears that we are confronted with a complicated and unpredictable future strategic nuclear environment that may require new ideas and new thinking if the Asian nuclear century is not be our last.
This article was originally published in ‘Raisina Files: Debating the world in the Asian Century
<1> This of course excludes Israel, which has never publicly admitted to having a nuclear weapons capability.
<2> Feroz Hassan Khan, “Challenges to nuclear stability in South Asia,” The Nonproliferation Review 10, no.1 (2003): 62.
<3> For an up-to-date estimate of Indian and Pakistani nuclear forces, see “The nuclear notebook” produced by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: http://bos.sagepub.com/cgi/collection/nuclearnotebook.
<4> See Zafar Khan, “Cold Start Doctrine: The conventional challenge to South Asian stability,” Contemporary Security Policy 33, no. 3 (2012): 577-594.
<5> See “The nuclear notebook.”
<6> Taylor Fravel and Evan Medeiros, “China’s search for assured retaliation: the evolution of Chinese nuclear strategy and force structure,” International Security 35, no. 2 (2010): 83.
<7> Lora Saalman, “Introduction,” in The China-India nuclear crossroads, ed. Lora Saalman (Washington, D.C., The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: 2012), 2.
<8> See David Albright, “Future directions in the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program: three scenario’s for 2020,” US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, February 2015, http://38north.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/NKNF_Future-Directions-2020.pdf.
<9> See Anna Fifield, “North Korea claims it could wipe out Manhattan with a hydrogen bomb,” The Washington Post, March 13, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/north-korea-claims-it-could-wipe-out-manhattan-with-a-hydrogen-bomb/2016/03/13/3834cd54-e919-11e5-b0fd-073d5930a7b7_story.html?tid=sm_tw.
<10> Denny Roy, “Parsing Pyongyang’s strategy,” Survival 52, no. 1 (2010): 111-112.
<11> Gene Gerzhoy and Nick Miller, “Donald Trump thinks more countries should have nuclear weapons: here what the research says,” The Washington Post, April 6, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/04/06/should-more-countries-have-nuclear-weapons-donald-trump-thinks-so/.
<12> Andrew Futter and Benjamin Zala, “Coordinating the arm swing with the pivot: nuclear deterrence, stability and US strategy in the Asia-Pacific,” The Pacific Review 28, no. 3 (2015): 368.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.